Yesterday I met a colleague for coffee, our usual weekly meeting. She is late, runs in with her notebooks, puts them down on the table, says, “I’ve got to get my mom out of the car. Be right back.” I’m not surprised by this; she had emailed to say that her mom, Mary, had a doctor’s appointment before our meeting.
Mary needs help walking. I think she broke her hip earlier this year, though I can’t say for sure. Her spine is curved like the cane she leans on and I wonder how tall she would be if she hadn’t lost so much bone and gravity didn’t pull at her. I try to imagine how she sees the world with her head bent—is it like how I read when I’m wearing my glasses, over the top, missing details out of the periphery, catching only half of the words in front of me?
Her daughter–my colleague—grabs an extra chair so Mary can have the booth seat to herself, and then she rushes off to the counter for menus. I sit across from Mary and smile. Casually, as if she were talking about the weather, she tells me she is sad.
I know a little about Mary’s depression from my conversations with her daughter, so again, I’m not taken by surprise. Even so, I don’t know what to say.
“I’m probably twice or more your age,” she says to me. I ask her how old she is. “Eighty-seven.” No, you’re not twice my age, I tell her.
“This is just so hard,” she says. “Living is a hard thing.”
I know, I say, because I do know, in my own way.
Our conversation takes place in snippets like this, while her daughter gets utensils, buys more coffee, puts the dishes in the dirty dish bin. Mary tells me that she’s lived a good life, loves her children, adores her grandchildren. She says this all while tilting her head a little, looking up at me, wiping her mouth. Her eyes fill up but she does not cry. “I don’t feel productive anymore.”
The meeting takes far longer than it should; I don’t want to bore Mary. But her daughter is every student’s dream teacher: passionate, her hands flutter like little birds when she talks, and all this knowledge she has to share flits around her and you want to reach into the air and grab some of it before she leaves.
Mary waits patiently, listening in at times, and other times staring absently at the newspaper her daughter put in front of her. When it is time to go, my colleague leaves to get the car and I walk Mary to the door. We wait and talk. I tell her the only thing I can think to say that might help, just even a little bit: it’s OK to feel sad. “That’s what the doctor says,” she says.
“A year ago, I was dancing. I was a ballerina. But now I can’t get to the barre.” She laughs, “I mean, b-a-r-r-e, not b-a-r.”
But you’ve got your brilliant mind, I say. She shrugs. “I try to keep my mind occupied. I download interesting things from the Internet.” You do? “Yes, I know all about computers. I taught math.” So you know COBOL and all that stuff, I ask. Her eyes light up, “Yes, of course. And you know about COBOL?” No, I tell her, but my dad was into computers early on and he wrote programs. She sighs. “Do you still have parents?” she asks. No, I tell her, they died years ago. I miss them terribly.
Her daughter returns with the car. Mary holds my hand. “It was so nice to meet you.”
I want to tell her not to give up. That her children would miss her. Hell, I want to buy her flowers. But all of that seems an intrusion. Instead I wave goodbye and watch as she sinks into the car seat, her head appearing just above the door like a child’s.